Don’t Shoot The Beer Messenger, I’m Just Starting A Conversation!
Prior to sitting down to write my article, I was conversing with some industry mates over their “feedback” on my debut in the media last week. I really wish I’d had the opportunity to do some media training when I was working for big beer, there is a real art to being able to not only get your point across, but also satisfy the need for a quick 10 second sound bite for the broadcaster. I failed at achieving this in my interview, and I copped a bit of ribbing from these guys.
You see, the point I was trying to get across was the fact that I love beer that has been made with more than just a fiscal gain in mind. I quote myself…“Craft beer for me is something that has that bit of extra flavour and has been made with that bit of love. I really like that idea.” I don’t think I articulated myself correctly in the interview and maybe came across as if I was saying that only the small independent guys were able to achieve this, which I don’t believe is the case.
At the risk of sounding like a sell-out, or not keeping it real, or being a hypocrite…at the end of the day, I don’t judge the beer I am drinking based on it being from a brewery that is big or small, I judge it on its taste…simple as that. Some of my favourite breweries in the USA are HUGE, production wise. Dogfish Head (20ml), Stone, (40ml) and Sierra Nevada (90ml) are bigger than most craft brewers in Australia, and yet they still seem to be cool in the eyes of the consumer? Is it the fact that even though they are big, they are still majority independently owned and hold true to their core values?
Out here in Australia, for whatever reason, once you get to a certain size in the Aussie market, you are pretty much written off by the more educated craft beer drinker. Is size the determining factor, or is it something else? I have so many questions about this topic, and I bet there are a million different answers to them…but I will ask them anyway.
Q: At what point does a brewery go from being cool, cutting edge and adored by craft beer drinkers to being too big, boring and “only in it for the money”?
My thoughts: Can you be small and boring, or small and only in it for the money? Leaning back on what I learned at University about brands and the Product Adoption Curve…you have early adopters who jump onto trends early and probably get sick of them well before the majority finds out they are cool. So do the cool craft breweries lose the early adopters, or the craft beer geeks, only to pick up cool factor in the eyes of the majority?
How do we view those small craft breweries who set up only to reap in the fiscal rewards should they be purchased by a bigger brewery one day? Are they different to someone who will never sell? What if they both produced equally delicious beer?
Q: Is there anything wrong with doing what you love, but trying to cash in at some stage to do something else that you love?
My thoughts: When Cam & Dave sold Mountain Goat, there were mixed reactions from the community…everything from “Sellout” to “Congratulations” to “Will never drink their beer again” to “Their hard work has paid off, well done”. After 16 years of busting their ass they are now able to enjoy some time off with friends and family and find a new challenge. I don’t think it has really hurt Mountain Goat so far, they are still producing great beer…maybe it was a win win for all?
Why does brewing have to be 100% about the love of the beer, and if it isn’t, you aren’t keeping it real? I think you owe it to yourself and your family to find some balance. Let’s think about Pirate Life Brewing, a couple of young scruffy looking blokes who look like they belong in the world of craft beer, but you can’t tell me that they are only in this for the love of the smell of a mash tun in the morning. Fuck off, these guys are smart…they have found their niche in the market with their beer styles, they have chosen to focus on cans and not taps due to the benefits of cans on beer life etc and the pressure on tap banks in their local market (Coopers owns SA), and they just purchased their own distribution company and are looking to expand into other beverages. They love beer, they love the industry, the produce good product, AND they are setting themselves up for a bright fiscal future. Nothing wrong with that, but I bet at some stage if they keep growing they will be accused by someone who doesn’t know them and their values of selling out, or forgetting where they came from.
Q: Can a brewery only be respected if it sells below a certain volume level?
My thoughts: No, I don’t think so. I think respect for a brewery has nothing to do with it’s volume, but I think it is more about ensuring that the brewer is still hands on with the entire process…once you hand everything completely over to computers and machines, its over…having said that, even the smallest breweries use computers and machines to some extent. Hell, even I use Beersmith in my home brewing to help with calculations!
Sierra Nevada sells more craft beer than anyone in Australia and is still respected?
Perhaps a brewery loses respect when it uses its volume, brand equity and product range to allow it to have an unfair advantage in the market. By this I mean the tactic of buying up taps and shelf space to keep the smaller players out of the market. I understand the financial reality of these practices, I get the frustrations of the smaller guys, but I don’t have a solution that would suit all players. I don’t love it, but I don’t have an answer.
Q: Does a brewery cease to produce great beer the minute it is purchased by a larger company?
My thoughts: Hell no. In some cases it might even allow it to experiment even more! How good was the Barrel Breed from Mountain Goat recently? Do you think Mike @ Panhead is going to drop his game now he is owned by Lion NZ? And how about Golden Road in the USA…now owned by the most evil of mega brewers, but the last few IPA’s I have had of theirs have been superb!
Perhaps one of the most advantageous things about a buyout is being able to borrow upon the larger company’s logistics…more fresh beer to more people. Al li would say here is that its every brewers dream to get their beer in more peoples hands, but not at the expense of your core values and remember what it was that endeared you to your drinkers…you can have your beer and drink it too, like those USA breweries I mentioned at the start.
Q: If a craft brewery is purchased by big beer, does it no longer have the right to call itself craft?
My thoughts: I think that until we get our s##t together and agree upon what exactly is and isn’t craft beer, this is a free for all. In the USA they have restrictions on size, ownership and the use of adjuncts in the brewing process before you can call yourself craft beer. There have been a few changes to ensure certain breweries are still included in the definition, but at least it’s agreed upon.
In Australia, there are no rules, and until we can agree on them, beers like Lazy Yak can still be called craft…but not with a straight face!
A brewing friend of mine describes beer as this” In craft beer, there are no shortcuts. Time is an ingredient”. If only we could find a way to convert that sentiment into measurable elements and end the argument what is and isn’t craft beer!
Q: Does the size of the brewery have an inverse relationship with quality?
My thoughts: In some ways I think this one kind of works against the independents, not all, but maybe the smaller startups who are still learning their craft and experimenting with it. I once had a beer from one of the “cool kid breweries” of the moment and was horrified at how bad it was, and I have had beers from newer breweries that lacked consistency between batches.
Quality and consistency is probably something that the larger breweries do well…perhaps the hard core craft drinker likes the ups and downs, maybe it’s part of the experience…but I work hard for my money and don’t want to waste $15 on a pint of inconsistent beer. Quality is something all brewers strive for, and it’s so important in this industry…you can have the coolest brewery, greatest branding, and loyal consumers…but one bad pint and that is all undone faster that you can say “ that tasted like piss”.
I have mentioned it before, but it’s why I believe the smaller guys need to work extra hard on their quality control…don’t destroy everything you and your fellow craft brewers have worked so hard for with a batch of beer that is “near enough”. We know craft beer drinkers are fickle, they are spoiled with choice…one bad beer from your brewery is all the motivation they need to switch over to the new kid on the block.
Q: Why do these big US brewers still command respect and admiration from consumers and fellow brewers alike, and yet the same does not apply in Australia?
My thoughts: The USA market is different to Australia in terms of how Aussie breweries can contract venues to pour their beers, locking others out of the equation. I wrote about this recently and understand the frustrations for some and the reasons for others, but under this model I don’t see the playing field ever truly be level, which means it will always be the elephant in the room at craft beer conferences!
On a consumer level, I wonder if that is more about the palates of craft beer drinkers in the USA and the maturity of the industry over there. Think about the lead beers for some of the big USA craft breweries, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Stone Pale Ale and Dogfish 90 Minute IPA…they are all very flavoursome beers. Compare that with a number of Australia’s larger craft breweries who are very much at the other end of the scale, producing barely there
“Australian Pale Ale’s”and other “gateway” craft beers with intentions of attracting drinkers away from less margin mainstream beers and into the higher margin craft beers. The sell is that
Q: Do we tar all breweries over a certain size with the same brush?
My thoughts: No I don’t think so. I think ownership, marketing practices, culture, beer quality, brewing credentials and giving back to the community are all taken into account here. For example, I would say that in my opinion, Little Creatures would be viewed in a different light to Yak Ales (Matilda Bay)…both owned by big breweries, but worlds apart in the beers the brew. Bright Ale vs Lazy Yak?
Q: Can a brewery within a macro operation redeem itself in the eyes of the consumer?
My thoughts: I think they can, and maybe even in the eye of even the harshest critic, the small brewery owner. But they have to fight hard, they need to be authentic, and they need to be passionate about the cause…true craft beer consumers aren’t stupid, they see through a lot of the bullshit, and if they see their passion for craft beer being lived by those that brew/sell/market it, they buy it!
For example, White Rabbit, now I haven’t had the pleasure to witness their new barrel aging facility in Geelong yet, but all reports that I have heard from people in the industry point to it being very impressive. I think Rabbit probably copped a bit of flack when it moved from being a community brewery in Healesville to being part of the larger Little Creatures setup in Geelong. They had to find their place within the massive Lion portfolio, and it took time, but look at them now…the envy of many a barrel aged loving craft beer brewer and connoisseur….driven by their people, their culture, their passion and their desire to remain true to their original proposition as a brewery.
BTW – Rabbits beers at GABS this year were outstanding, I look forward to seeing what happens with them in the future.
Q: Does the pressure of providing shareholder return ultimately remove the “love” from the brewery and make everything a cost/benefit decision?
My thoughts: Sadly I think that for some, this one is kind of true. There are many stories of breweries being sucked up into larger machines, losing some of their identity, tweaking their products to fit in beer portfolio decisions and brewing schedules and strict cost per litre calculations that need to be taken into account.
Shareholders want their return on investment, that’s just reality, and sometime a beer that is at the end of a long line of brews in a portfolio will get deleted to concentrate on other beers that sell more. The cult favourite will go in favour of the fan favourite. Some examples would be things like James Squire Sundown Lager, gone in favour of 150 Lashes, or Matilda Bay Bohemian Pilsner and Big Helga in favour of Minimum Chips and The Ducks…or maybe the change in Pale Ales over at Mountain Goat?
That’s my take on things for this week…right or wrong, that’s how I see it. At the end of the day, I want fresh and consistent beer, not too fussed over whether it is produced by a large or small brewer…I will drink both for different reasons. I love going to small craft breweries where I can speak to the owner, tour the stainless with the brewer and get really fresh beer, but I also love that I can walk into hundreds of pubs Australia wide and drink a pint of a great beer like Creatures Pale or Stone & Wood Pacific Ale.
I have a dream that one day we may have such a vibrant and healthy craft beer industry that gives everyone a fair go and allows the beers that consumers are drinking to be drunk on their merit, for their quality and taste, and not based on brewery size, ownership or anything. Some may say that we are getting there, there are different levels to the craft beer scene, depending on how far along their journey of discovery the consumer is. Education is leading the way, brewers and the like are so giving of their time to champion the cause, and it’s great, and we are starting to see a shift towards consumers being more inquisitive about their beer.
Achieving my dream isn’t going to be easy, there are multiple points of view in the arguments that keep us from getting there…will we ever get there, I don’t know? There was a craft beer conference on Queensland’s Gold Coast last week, everyone was invited, big or small. Apparently there was a session by Dick Cantwell, quality ambassador for the Brewers Association, where he talked about the importance of all brewers, big or small, producing quality product to ensure they remain relevant and drive the industry forward. Quality is King, and I can’t agree with him more…maybe that’s the key to a level playing field, concentrate on producing quality beer that just can’t be ignored, and let the consumer decide!
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Cheers to Quality Beers!